Teamsters Start the Year With a Bang, Demanding Better Contracts in Honor of MLK

The Teamsters’ Martin Luther King Jr Day mobilization was an encouraging early sign that recently elected union reformers intend to hit the ground running by organizing members around concrete contract demands. They’ll need that energy during contract negotiations in 2023.

A Teamsters Local 25 rank-and-filer in Charlestown, Massachusetts, 2021. (MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images)

This year’s Martin Luther King Jr Day featured the usual cast of civic and faith leaders engaged in acts of community service, but it also included an unlikely actor: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The union’s “Deliver on the Dream” campaign sought to build on the true legacy of Martin Luther King Jr’s struggle for economic and racial justice. All over the country and across more than a hundred thirty different worksites, Teamsters mobilized with parking lot rallies and petitions to demand that United Parcel Service (UPS) make MLK Day a paid holiday, in accordance with a resolution passed at the last Teamster convention. They also demanded the company end two-tier jobs, create more full-time jobs, and pay part-time employees a living wage.

“Dr King’s dream is still unfulfilled when we still have part-timers working for poverty wages with no access to full-time jobs. By fighting to make MLK Day a paid holiday UPS Teamsters are saying it is time we all be treated with respect,” explained Eliza Schultz, a part-time package handler from Chicago.

UPS increasingly relies on part-time workers who are disproportionately black and brown. Currently in the national UPS contract, these part-time positions have a starting wage of only $15 an hour. In many parts of the country, UPS has to use “market rate adjustments” to keep wages on pace with nonunion competitors. Addressing the concerns of these part-time workers would inherently lift up the most racially diverse portion of UPS’s workforce.

This day of action had broader organizational significance beyond the holiday. It took place in the aftermath of a historic union leadership election that swept a reform slate, headlined by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, to power. The slate ran on a platform of renewed militancy and rejecting the business unionism of the Hoffa era. Longtime reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) endorsed the slate and played a vital role in bringing the coalition to power.

But the new administration does not take over until March, and big questions loom during this transition period. The reformers need to figure out how to keep the winning electoral coalition mobilized and heal internal factional divides in the lead-up to contract negotiations with UPS in 2023.

Teamsters locals that were on opposite sides during the election united for the day of action. Ron Herrera, who ran for General Secretary Treasurer on the opposing slate, mobilized his Local 396 in Los Angeles in support of the campaign. Both union officers and rank-and-file members were given the resources they needed to pull off the action. Locals built on an already existing culture of parking lot meetings and rallies to engage members.

Eugene Braswell, a package car driver and shop steward in New York City’s Local 804, described the impact the campaign had on his local:

A lot of members showed up for our action. It got people talking and showing unity. We want to show the company numbers. When they look out the window and see a lot of us united across the country they see we’re going to stick together. That’s the only thing that shows them we’re building momentum for the contract and the concession stand is closed.

In Atlanta, Local 728 had already been fighting for a paid MLK Day holiday for years. They garnered substantial community support for their “Deliver on the Dream” action, with groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and Democratic Socialists of America participating.

The union will need this same energy going into their contract fight with UPS. UPS posted record profits of over $23 billion in 2021, while its workforce was pushed to the brink during the worst of the pandemic. This upcoming contract fight will be a key test of strength for the union and its incoming leadership. More broadly, a victory for Teamsters at UPS could galvanize workers at other logistics giants like Amazon to organize as well.

The “Deliver on the Dream” day of action is an encouraging early sign from the reformers that they intend to hit the ground running by organizing members around concrete contract demands. It also highlighted the possibility that this giant union can act in unity, despite bitter factional divides that were present during the leadership election. Time will tell if this momentum can be leveraged to win big gains for workers at the heart of the logistics industry in 2023.